Monday, January 23, 2006

Alain de Botton in the Times: "I am an idiot"*

*may not have actually written these words. At least, not verbatim.

Alain de Botton reviews A Mind of Its Own, by psychologist Cordelia Fine. It's a book about something I'm quite fascinated by - how the mind can deceive itself, and how difficult it can be to trust our own perceptions.

Alain agrees - at least, it appears that he agrees, on the surface of things. But he complains that her book relies too much on reporting experiments. "
Our criteria of proof in everyday life are infinitely lower than those of science", he pouts. "When a writer such as La Rochefoucauld tells us, "We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others," it would be rare for an ordinary reader to ask for scientific proof to back this up. The charm of the insight is indeed based on the minimalism of its evidence."

Charm - yes, perhaps. After all, charm is ever so important to Mr. de Botton, with his artfully pretentious books filled with knowing allusions to the philosophers. But 'charm' misses the entire bloody point: empirical study is what allows us to *know* anything with any degree of certainty - not absolute certainty, of course, but at least we can feel reasonably confident of knowledge thus derived, up until someone comes up with better evidence. 'Charm' is a wilful, disingenuous back door through which we can let back in all that unreconstructed prejudice and ignorance. Because, as Mr de Botton fails to remember, our brain's susceptibility to self-deception means that the charms of insights wholly unsupported by evidence are dangerous indeed.

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